Old church saved from foundation’s failings

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Craig Gilbert, owner of North East Housewrights in Westbrook, left, and workers Friday carry a beam to replace a deteriorating  joist at historic Tory Hill Meetinghouse in Buxton.

Craig Gilbert, owner of North East Housewrights in Westbrook, left, and workers Friday carry a beam to replace a deteriorating  joist at historic Tory Hill Meetinghouse in Buxton.

Tory Hill Meetinghouse, built in 1822, is undergoing rehab, replacing rotted timbers.

Malcolm Washburn of  the Tory Hill Meetinghouse business committee and  The Rev. Allison Curry, pastor of the Buxton church, are pleased with restoration work at the 195-year old church.

A worker from North East Housewrights Friday readies a replacement timber during the rehab of Tory Hill Church.

BUXTON — Historic Tory Hill Meetinghouse is baring some old bones, but not those buried in the graveyard behind the church.

Ravaged by time and weather, rotted timbers in the wooden skeleton supporting the church, built in 1822, are being replaced.

Malcolm Washburn, a church business committee member, pointed out last week how the back wall inside the sanctuary has been separating from the building.

A close look last year revealed the church was resting on some rotted timbers. A side wall was also slipping outward. A few huge granite slabs under timbers had tilted and in places only 3 inches of sills were still sitting on the granite foundation.

“We had a few problems here,” Washburn said. “It’s such a beautiful building we want to preserve it.

The church hired Craig Gilbert, owner of North East Housewrights in Westbrook, as the contractor to save the edifice. The work has entailed replacing some of the huge sills and realigning the granite foundation blocks.

“I’m very pleased with quality of the work,” Washburn said.

Washburn said repairs to the structure are costing about $38,000. Painting the exterior is on hold.

The 195-year old church, officially named the First Congregational Church of Buxton, is at the intersection of routes 202 and 112. An architectural feature is a decorated, dome ceiling in the sanctuary.

The church had been organized in 1742 and an early pastor, The Rev. Paul Coffin, is buried in the old graveyard at the current site. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Famed children’s author Kate Douglas Wiggin, who summered in Hollis across the Saco River, attended church services at Tory Hill. The church is the setting for Wiggin’s book and play “The Old Peabody Pew,” which the Dorcas Society of Hollis and Buxton produces annually at Christmas in the church.

When the church was built, barrels of rum were hauled to the raising, according to the current pastor, The Rev. Allison Curry. Rum obviously ensured a good turnout of volunteers. Decades later, though, Wiggin decades later led a temperance crusade to rid  demon rum from amid the congregation.

Rehab work at the church is in line with maintaining the historical significance of the building.

One of the original 60-foot, 8-by-9 inch beams had rotted. Replacement beams were sawed at Hillside Lumber in Westbrook, Gilbert said.

He designed specially-made brackets attached to an exterior sidewall and a steel beam held up by jacks and blocks supported the building so sills could be replaced.

The wall next to the street had been sliding outward over the years. Cable pullers, anchored through a floor inside the sanctuary, were used to stabilize the wall while sills were replaced.

As for paint covering a multitude of sins, as the saying goes, “It can’t cover the sins here, though,” said Curry, looking at exposed, decaying timbers.

Painting the church, estimated to cost upwards of $30,000, will have to wait. Painting would require renting a lift to stretch upward 60 feet to the tower.

While finances have delayed sealing work on the tower and painting, Washburn said the church has been blessed with some faithful donors like the Narragansett No. 1 Foundation.

Susan Eldridge, a church spokeswoman, said donations to the renovation can be mailed to First Congregational Church of Buxton, P.O. Box 37, Bar Mills, Maine 04004, with “Building fund” in the memo line of the check.

Robert Lowell can be reached at 854-2577 or rlowell@keepmecurrent.com